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Increased scrutiny of Nestlé should call the Nutri-score system it uses into question

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The leak of an internal Nestlé presentation, reported on this week by the Financial Times, revealed that over 60% of the multinational firm’s mainstream food and drink products do not meet a "recognised definition of health". The findings have understandably prompted concern, since it’s quite problematic that the largest food company in Europe is still producing predominantly unhealthy products while obesity continues to affect a staggering 20% of Europeans.

But while Nestlé has spent the past week attempting to repair their reputation following the leak, not enough attention has been paid to Nestlé’s front-of-pack nutritional label (FOPNL) of choice, Nutri-score, which gives good ‘grades’ to many of Nestlé’s products with questionable health properties. The flawed algorithm used by the Nutri-score system - present on almost all Nestlé products - allows them to reformulate products in order to seem healthier, to the detriment of smaller producers who cannot easily modify the compositions of the food they sell.

Nutri-score’s loopholes are also alarming beyond their manipulation by Nestlé, given that the controversial nutritional labelling system has also swayed several powerful European governments including France, Germany and Belgium. Unless alternative solutions are taken more seriously into consideration, Nutri-score’s encroaching influence will continue to threaten European health and husbandry.

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Nutri-score’s greenwashing of processed foods

Over the past seven years Nestlé has succeeded in reducing the sugar and sodium content by approximately 15%. However, as nutritional scientist Professor Marion Nestle (no relation) explains, slashing the content of sugar, saturated fat and salt “without changing the flavor profile” is not easy and all too often involves substituting these ingredients with processed additives that have limited health benefits.

But what makes Nestlé’s predominantly insalubrious offering particularly problematic is the fact that the Nutri-score labelling system helps to make these foods appear healthier than they really are. Although Nestlé’s website claims to “believe everyone has the right to know what’s in the food they eat”, their choice of FOPNL which amalgamates nutritional data to produce a score which fails to show a complete nutritional profile, belies this statement.

Nutri-score considers the levels of salt, sugar and saturated fat present in a fixed 100g/100ml serving of a product in order to assign a colour from green to red and letter from A to E. While this simplistic ‘traffic-light’ coding might seem to aid healthy decision-making the system’s algorithm produces a single score that is often unrepresentative of the food’s actual make-up, thereby inaccurately guiding consumers.

This oversimplifying system rewards Nestlé and other processed food companies for replacing sugar with processed additives, and fails to expose their lack of nutritious content or the degree to which they’ve been modified. To make matters worse, the opaque scheme also penalizes naturally healthy uni-ingredient foods such as olive oil (which receives a C grade) and cheese (predominantly assigned a D grade) without considering that not all fats are harmful—all while overlooking natural micronutrients such as vitamins.

While some Nestlé products such as a San Pellegrino fizzy drink do receive a Nutri-score E, other products like their dairy-free Wunda Milk, receives an A—despite the fact that the synthetic milk-replacement is produced using ultra-processed peas. Anthony Fardet, a researcher at France’s National Institute of Agronomic Research commented that with Nutri-score, "We end up with such aberrations where sugary breakfast cereals for children and (diet) sodas are well rated."

The fact that Nestlé was sued in 2018 for mislabelling foods containing genetically modified organisms as containing ‘No GMO Ingredients’, and again in 2020 for bottling groundwater and selling it as spring water, makes the adoption of Nutri-score is only the most recent example of misleading consumers. It doesn’t take a cynic to recognise that Nestlé didn’t adopt Nutri-score in 2019 out of goodwill. The company is, in fact, so keen on Nutri-score that, not content to slap Nutri-score on all of their own products by 2022, they have even lobbied the EU to expedite Nutri-score’s adoption.

Europe’s baffling resignation

Unfortunately, Nestlé is just one of Nutri-score’s standard-bearers, a group which includes advocates from multinationals to policymakers. Just last month, Luxembourg became the latest of seven nations to choose Nutri-score, albeit on a voluntary basis. But reservations abound even among the country’s Consumer Protection League who supported the rollout, with one spokesperson admitting that Nutri-score allows producers to “reduce the sugar, fat or salt content and substitute additives that aren't necessarily healthier”, and another explaining that since even healthy products receive a “bad mark”, the score needs refining.

Ever since Spain introduced Nutri-score on a voluntary basis, the same hang-ups have polarized parliamentary opinion, ending in the suggestion of an exemption for olive oil—a decision which only further infuriated producers of jamón ibérico and manchego cheese. That these governments’ have selected the Nutri-score system despite its evident flaws, is particularly confusing given the existence of other labels which do a better job of nutritional evaluation.

Recognising the limitations of Nutri-score, Italy - the second healthiest nation in the world according to Bloomberg’s Healthiest Country Index - has produced their own FOPNL called Nutrinform. Unlike Nutri-score’s one-size-fits-all system, Nutrinform displays nutritional information through battery symbols showing individual percentages of energy, fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in a single portion, compared to the average daily intake for an adult. This table format allows consumers to make actual informed decisions about their food. But despite the fact that a recent survey showed that the majority of Italian citizens prefer Nutrinform to the French equivalent and the scheme enjoys the support of European producers and policymakers alike, Nutrinform is up against a veritable Nutri-score coalition in Europe.

The recent revelations about Nestlé should put European governments more on guard against the problematic Nutri-score scheme. Given the rising tide of grass roots and governmental resistance across the bloc, pro-Nutri-score lawmakers will have to consider if it is wise to settle on a nutritional label which is failing European consumers and producers, particularly in lieu of popular alternative solutions.

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Republican report says coronavirus leaked from China lab - scientists still probing origins

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A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, shared with Reuters on 18 February 2020. NEXU Science Communication/via REUTERS

A preponderance of evidence proves the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic leaked from a Chinese research facility, said a report by US Republicans released on Monday (2 August), a conclusion that US intelligence agencies have not reached, write Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball, Reuters.

The report also cited "ample evidence" that Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) scientists - aided by US experts and Chinese and US government funds - were working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans and such manipulation could be hidden.

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Representative Mike McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released the report by the panel's Republican staff. It urged a bipartisan investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that has killed 4.4 million people worldwide. (Graphic on global cases and deaths).

China denies a genetically modified coronavirus leaked from the facility in Wuhan - where the first COVID-19 cases were detected in 2019 - a leading but unproven theory among some experts. Beijing also denies allegations of a cover-up.

Other experts suspect the pandemic was caused by an animal virus likely transmitted to humans at a seafood market near the WIV.

"We now believe it's time to completely dismiss the wet market as the source," said the report. "We also believe the preponderance of the evidence proves the virus did leak from the WIV and that it did so sometime before 12 September, 2019."

The report cited what it called new and under-reported information about safety protocols at the lab, including a July 2019 request for a $1.5 million overhaul of a hazardous waste treatment system for the facility, which was less than two years old.

In April, the top U.S. intelligence agency said it concurred with the scientific consensus that the virus was not man-made or genetically modified. Read more.

US President Joe Biden in May ordered US intelligence agencies to accelerate their hunt for the origins of the virus and report back in 90 days. Read more.

A source familiar with current intelligence assessments said the US intelligence community has not reached any conclusion whether the virus came from animals or the WIV.

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coronavirus

COVID-19 Delta variant gains prevalence in Italy - health institute

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People rest without wearing masks as Italy lifts mandatory masks outdoors thanks to a decline in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases and hospitalizations, in Matera, Italy, 28 June. REUTERS/Yara Nardi

The highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has gained dominance in Italy, the National Health Institute (ISS) said on Friday (30 July), releasing data showing it accounted for 94.8% of cases as of 20 July, writes Emilio Parodi, Reuters.

The variant, first identified in India in December 2020, is now dominant worldwide and has led to a spike in infection rates that has stoked concerns over the global economic recovery.

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In the previous survey based on data from 22 June, the Delta variant represented just 22.7% of cases. By contrast, the Alpha variant accounted for 3.2% of cases as of July 20 against a previous prevalence of 57.8%.

"It is essential to continue the systematic tracking of cases and to complete the vaccination cycle as quickly as possible", ISS President Silvio Brusaferro said in a statement.

The ISS said its survey did not include all variant cases but only those detected on the day it was carried out. It added that the Gamma variant, first identified in Brazil, fell to 1.4% of cases from 11.8% in the past survey.

The institute also pointed out an "extremely small increase" in cases of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa, which it says is characterised by partial immune evasion.

Italy has registered 128,029 deaths linked to COVID-19 since its outbreak emerged in February last year, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the eighth-highest in the world. It has reported 4.34 million cases to date.

Almost 59% of Italians over 12 years were fully vaccinated as of Friday, while about 10% are awaiting their second dose.

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Thousands protest against COVID-19 health pass in France

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Thousands of people protested in Paris and other French cities on Saturday (31 July) against a mandatory coronavirus health pass for entry to a wide array of public venues, introduced by the government as it battles a fourth wave of infections, write Lea Guedj and Yiming Woo.

Protesters injured three police officers in Paris, a police spokesperson said. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter that 19 demonstrators were arrested, including 10 in Paris.

It was the third weekend in a row that people opposed to President Emmanuel Macron's new COVID-19 measures have taken to the streets, an unusual show of determination at a time of year when many people are focused on taking their summer break.

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The number of demonstrators has grown steadily since the start of the protests, echoing the "yellow vest" movement, that started in late 2018 against fuel taxes and the cost of living.

An interior ministry official said 204,090 had demonstrated across France, including 14,250 in Paris alone. This is about 40,000 more than last week.

"We're creating a segregated society and I think it is unbelievable to be doing this in the country of human rights," said Anne, a teacher who was demonstrating in Paris. She declined to give her last name.

A protester holds a sign reading "Vaccinated to freedom", during a demonstration called by the "yellow vest" (gilets jaunes) movement against France's restrictions, including a compulsory health pass, to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Paris, France, July 31, 2021. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier
Protestors attend a demonstration called by the "yellow vest" (gilets jaunes) movement against France's restrictions, including a compulsory health pass, to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Paris, France, July 31, 2021. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier

"So I took to the streets; I have never protested before in my life. I think our freedom is in danger."

Visitors going to museums, cinemas or swimming pools are already denied entry if they cannot produce the health pass showing they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have had a recent negative test.

Parliament approved a new law this week that will make vaccinations mandatory for health workers and extend the health pass requirement to bars, restaurants, trade shows, trains and hospitals.

About 3,000 police officers were deployed in the capital, with anti-riot officers striving to keep demonstrators on authorised routes.

Authorities sought to avoid a repeat of events last week, when scuffles between police and demonstrators broke out on the Champs-Elysees. Read more.

Protesters were also out in other cities like Marseille, Lyon, Montpelier, Nantes and Toulouse, shouting "Freedom!" and "No to the health pass!".

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